Wainscot is a traditional wall dress-up. Although it's often used in dining rooms, we used it to enliven a drab bathroom.
You can buy bogus “wainscot” in large panels, but it looks as fake as it is. We used the real stuff: 1⁄4"-thick oak boards with a decorative bead down the center. Each board covers 3 1⁄8" of wall. An overlap along one edge covers the joint.
Because wainscot can shrink with time, stain or paint all board faces beforehand so that the area revealed by shrinkage will resemble the face. Manufacturers recommend that you put sealer on the back to stabilize the boards, but because we didn't seal the front, we saw no reason to seal the back.
Step 1: Layout and Prep Made Easy
Unlike many home improvements, this one won't be consumed by hours of preparation. You just need to mark the top of the wainscot and cut the starting board.
Mark the Top Line
Mark the top of the wainscot and nailer—the board you'll nail the wainscot to. If you will not finish the bottom with baseboard, measure 32"—one wainscot length—up from the lowest point of the floor. If you will use baseboard, measure up 32" from the highest point on the floor. (The baseboard will cover gaps below the short boards.)
Mark a level line through your mark, across the whole wall. The wainscot and the nailer, described shortly, will both touch this line.
Cut the Starting Board
To avoid having an extremely narrow last board, divide the length of the wall by the width of a board. Compare the remainder to the width of the wainscot. If the last board would be too short, follow these steps:
Add the remainder just calculated to the width of a whole board.
Divide by 2 to get the width of the first board.
For example, if you're using 3 1⁄8" wainscot, and the last board calculates to 1 1⁄4":
- 31⁄8" + 11⁄4" = 4 3⁄8"
- 43⁄8" / 2 = 2 3⁄16" (width of first board)
Point the first underlap away from the corner so the overlap on the new boards covers each joint.
Scribing is handy for adjusting ideal things that you're building with (like new wainscot) to the non-ideal things they should meet (like your house). Hold the board in the correct orientation (that is, vertical), measure how far it must move to reach the desired location, set the divider to that length, and scribe the cutting line.
Ideally you'll start in the straightest, most visible, corner. If that corner is crooked or not vertical, scribe the starting piece:
Hold the board vertical, touching the corner.
Measure the biggest gap between the board and the wall.
Set a divider (“compass”) to this measurement.
Hold the divider horizontal and “scribe” down the wall.
Cut this line with a jigsaw, and then fit the board against the wall.